One week ago, the Biden administration celebrated the massive rollout of a long-promised legislative priority that would do something not accomplished in a generation: a bill that would totally reshape America’s immigration system from the ground up, and which would allow the 11 million undocumented people who live here a chance at legal status.
The celebrations didn’t last long.
The reopening of facilities meant to house unaccompanied migrant children seeking asylum in the United States this week has also reopened deep wounds in the immigrant advocacy community. Many stakeholders, already skeptical of the Biden administration’s commitment to humanely reforming the immigration system after the previous administration, have now openly likened the facilities to the cages where migrant children were held after being separated from their parents by the Trump administration.
“If President Biden cares about reuniting families, why is he reopening a detention center to hold immigrant children?” asked Lis-Marie Alvarado, program director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-aligned social justice organization. “He is planning to put children in danger, in a place where it’s impossible to follow public health guidelines for COVID-19, where there are no safety measures for hurricanes, where they will have no access to education, a high likelihood of abuse, and there is toxic contamination.”
Others called the Biden administration’s response to the growing number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. border a rehashing of the same failed policies of the past—the same policies that they’d warned Biden against repeating.
“We are worried about the lack of creativity from this administration. They are doing what they already know,” Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Central American Resource Center of San Francisco, said during a town hall on issues facing migrant communities organized by Alianza Americas and Presente, social justice organizations that advocate on behalf of migrant communities. “Those children must be released, they must be reunited and healed. These have been unforgivable crimes and this is a serious step backwards.”
The White House has aggressively pushed back against comparison of the facilities to the kennel-like conditions in which children were held during the Trump administration’s family separation crisis, describing the current solution as the least-bad of the options available to the government as a growing number of children flee violence in Central America alone.
“There are only a couple of options here,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday. “Either we send kids back to a very dangerous journey, back to their countries—that’s not a good option… We send them to families that have not been vetted—we’ve seen challenges with that in the past, where kids have then been trafficked. That is not a good option, in our view.”
The best option, Psaki said, “is to get these kids processed through HHS facilities where there are COVID protocols in place, where they are safe, where they can have access to educational and medical care. There are no—there are very few—good options here, and we chose the one we thought was best.”
The perceived backsliding on immigration issues comes as other top priorities by immigrant-rights advocates have been delayed or denied by the new administration. Biden, as he had promised during the presidential campaign, created a task force charged with reuniting migrant families separated under President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies, but did not commit to guaranteeing that such reunifications could happen on U.S. soil. An executive order barring the Justice Department from renewing contracts with private prisons pointedly did not include such facilities under contract as immigrant detention centers. The president’s supposed 100-day moratorium on deportations did not include any migrants who have arrived in the United States within the past four months.
All of these combined have immigration groups seething that, once again, they’ve been burned by a Democratic administration that had promised major reforms. Some organizations, many of which helped the Biden transition shape its immigration policy and strenuously backed his campaign, are now expressing growing worry that he’s too afraid to use the tools at his dispense to fix the problems.
“It is critical that it not repeat the mistakes of the Trump administration,” said Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, who noted that while the Biden administration’s efforts to process unaccompanied migrant children “prioritizes children’s safety” and the needs of the public in a pandemic, the kids need to be released into non-carceral settings as quickly as possible.
“We urge the Biden administration to provide full transparency and accountability for these temporary shelters,” Shah said. “Independent organizations and lawyers must have access to monitor them, they must be run by responsible non-profit providers, and they must be closed as soon as public health permits.”
After four years of proving that housing children in detention facilities—even “gold-standard” facilities like the ones in Texas that were reopened on Wednesday—are dangerous and inhumane at any duration, advocates are sick of pretending that they’re open to a middle ground on the issue of putting minors in carceral settings, however briefly.
“Because they are temporary in nature, children are often held in conditions that aren’t equivalent to other [Office of Refugee Resettlement] detention centers, which already have a history of well-reported abuses, including sexual harassment and a lack of proper background checks,” the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said in a statement in response to the reopening of the facilities. “Although these children are kept in so-called ‘protective environments,’ they are in fact being processed for deportation… These horrors could happen again.”
Some of the criticism directed at the administration has come from conservatives, who have accused Biden of hypocrisy in keeping children detained after so forcefully condemning the Trump administration’s family separation policies.
“What we are seeing here is the cruelty and inhumanity of Joe Biden’s immigration policies,” Stephen Miller—yes, that Stephen Miller—told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham with a smirk on Wednesday night. “He came into office and announced that there’s an open door, and that young people who come into this country illegally are going to be resettled instead of returned. He is forcing thousands of young children into the arms of smugglers, into the arms of traffickers, into the arms of coyotes... That is cruel. That is inhumane.”
Pressed on the comparison by The View’s Meghan McCain, Psaki on Thursday said that the facilities had been “revamped” in order to more humanely house children during processing. But when a White House argues that its policy of detaining children at the U.S. southern border is almost nothing like keeping kids in cages, it’s not a winning posture.
And for advocates, it’s a distinction without a difference.
“We shut this place down before,” Alvarado promised, “and we will do it again.”